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Old 28th Nov 2011, 07:40
  #47 (permalink)  
Air China Expat
Join Date: Nov 2011
Location: Beijing
Posts: 1
Air China Bases

Anybody considering a contract with Air China needs to fully understand the current situation regarding bases so here is my summary.

Although the agencies have always been quick to list the various bases on offer (traditionally LHR, FRA, SYD, MEL & YVR) they have never been able to actually confirm any pilots base before joining date. The truth is that you apply and attend screening without anyone (from Air China) discussing bases with you. On your first day on contract you and your classmates will attend a meeting in the office in PEK and be given a sort of 'induction' briefing. This is the first chance you will actually get to state your preferred base and discuss it's availability (or lack thereof). Nothing the agency may have said to you up to this point (or indeed after) carries any weight with Air China. It's not unusual to find that they have made incorrect assumptions about where you will want to be based, using information like your nationality (for example a Brit living with his family in Sydney was initially based at LHR and a Canadian living in Germany was slated for YVR). Your chosen base may actually be full but the agency either forgot to mention this or pleads ignorance despite the existing pilots regularly emailing them saying "why are you still advertising for pilots at Frankfurt when you know full well the base already has a waiting list?". There was a time when Air China over-crewed bases, particularly in Europe, just to get guys through the door but the existing pilots started kicking off (especially the Aussies) so that situation seems to be over for now.

The problem that has been developing recently is that they have been closing established bases with no consideration at all for the guys that are based there. This has mainly been due to the arrival of the B777-300ERs but not always. Specifically, over the past twelve months, Munich base has closed (it closed one year ago and is just re-opening), Rome has closed, Frankfurt has closed (happening right now), Heathrow is closing in March as is the temporary Paris base. Frankfurt, London and Paris are closing because the route is going 777 (but who knows for how long) but Munich and Rome closed while still remaining A330 routes. This is because not all flight departments are allowed to work with foreigners and these routes have been allocated to the Chengdu crews so that means foreigners out. The aircraft are still the same Beijing based aircraft flying the same route with the same flight number but because the flight is allocated to a different department the foreigners at these bases had to move to other bases at their own expense and inconvenience.

For the past four years, Air China has been receiving a steady stream of new A330s and consequently, most new routes have been on that fleet. More bases have opened and few have closed so the foreign pilots have had a reasonably steady life. Now though things are changing rapidly as the first of nineteen 777-300ERs have started to arrive and some routes are switching to that fleet. It's important to point out though that Air China are still barely halfway into a total commitment of 54 A330s and a new one arrives every month or two. They claim this will then be the largest A330 fleet in the world although I've never bothered to check this. It is expected that there will be a lot of switching around between these two fleets as operations demand so it might be quite normal for the 777 to fly a route in summer and the A330 in winter etc. The problem is that from now on, we have TWO new fleets being delivered in parallel rather than ONE fleet replacing another one and this brings nothing but uncertainty to each and every long haul route. A good example is Heathrow where the A330 pilots being booted out are being told that they may well be back after summer 2012 as the 777 may only be needed for the Olympics. To further complicate things, Air China also have 787s, A350s and B747-8s on order so there are no less than five types of new wide body being delivered any of which can be put on any route. Of course a route could also go to the existing A340s, 772s, 744s, 767s or remain on type but change 'flight department' (like MUN or FCO) so hopefully you get the picture that base stability is fast becoming a thing of the past here.

What has prompted this posting specifically is that Air China have just closed the long established and most heavily crewed A330 base that we have on the foreign pilot network (Frankfurt) and that we were given around three weeks notice of this happening. I feel a need to let prospective applicants know this. All Frankfurt pilots were simply asked what base we wanted for the December roster onwards. Some have taken LHR or CDG temporarily but there simply aren't enough European bases now (after March anyway) for the number of pilots we have even though they really need us on the fleet. New destinations on the 330 include twice daily to Singapore (taken FROM the 777) and also to Delhi so that is where they want to deploy the pilots (i.e. effectively making us Beijing based).

Just to be clear, no relocation is offered, there are no staff travel concessions and you are expected to just sort it out yourself at your own expense and as we've just seen you may only get three weeks notice (despite them insisting on three months if you want to leave). So if you're thinking of joining (on either the 777 or the A330) then you really have to think about how important the base is in your decision. Pilots have already joined on the A330 on a two year contract only to find that the contract term is absolutely meaningless as their base of LHR or FRA has been closed (to them) just a couple of months after joining. Don't be fooled into thinking that as the 773 is the newest aircraft to join the fleet that all it's bases will be stable, there are still far more A330s to be delivered than 773s as well as all of the other new wide body types. In the last couple of years alone, LHR has been a 744 base, then A330 and now B777, yet apparently the A330 is very rarely full so a switch back post-Olympics may well happen.

Air China also introduced domestic flying for foreigners earlier this year. This means an increasing amount of your time is spent flying out of Beijing to destinations such as Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Taipei and Seoul, instead of flying on to the base you had originally joined for. Shanghai in particular can have regular four hour ground delays for startup. The 777 has far more domestic flights than the A330 (remember you will be flying the dirty old -200s as well as the new -300s).

I hope this helps. I'm not trying to be negative for the sake of it but am simply pointing out a major issue that you might not be aware of in the hope that pressure is then exerted on Air China by the agencies to sort these things out. Beware of any agency that promises you any fixed base as Air China have the right to change the type on your chosen route with zero notice and no agency can do anything about it. Similarly, assume there will be no pay rise unless one actually happens - it's been rumoured for at least two years.
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